#TenThingsNotToSayToAWriter is a trending hashtag on the internet and one which Jodi Picoult, Amy Tan and others are having fun with...so I thought I'd chime in. After three decades of living the writer's life, I have many more than ten juicy possibilities for this list. But here is my all-time personal favorite:
"I found your book at a garage sale! In the Free Box!"
When these words were offered to me, it brought me back to my newly college-fledged comment to the CEO of a major freight car company, delivered with stars in my eyes at a cocktail party in the late '80s: "Guess what, Mr. _______, I just sold my stock in your company to make the deposit on my first apartment!" I was ecstatic about my first writing space, my first foray into the writing life I so craved, my first twirl with stocking my own refrigerator, having Breakfast at Tiffany's-esque parties, possibly even getting a cat and naming it after my favorite Salinger character, Franny.
The CEO looked at me like I'd just kicked him in the shins. "Thank you?" he said, playfully.
I was clueless. I knew nothing about how the world of investments worked. All I knew was that this little bit of stock, given to me by a godparent at birth, was just enough to cover a month of rent in a crap apartment in Allston, MA--where you lived if you couldn't afford Boston or Cambridge. To me it was Mecca and that stock sale was my meal ticket to the rest of my life as a real life writer. So when at one of my Haven Writing Retreats in Montana, where I've continued my writing life for two decades, (thankfully not in a cockroach-infested apartment), one of my attendees came up to me on the first night with those same stars in her eyes and uttered the following words, I promptly forgave her and saw them for what they were: her own meal ticket to her own magical writing life: "Thank you so much for your book! It helped me to know that I'm a real writer! Something told me I had to stop at that garage sale, and I'm glad I listened because that's where I found your book! In a Free Box!" Not even a fifty cent steal... but Free! Bonus!
I learned a long time ago, likely in that cockroach infested Allston apartment of my writerly dreams, that the writer's ego never gets to explode. Being the leader of retreats that people come to from all over the world, sometimes, if for only a nanosecond, can be grounds for possible ego-explosion. But thankfully, something always makes certain that it will never happen. No, we writers get to have that usually well-intentioned kick in the shins over and over again. It makes us write better, I guess.
So I took the baton from the CEO, smiled and said "Thank you?" Because the truth is, however people get our writing in their hands, even if it keeps us poor and ego-deflated, it's a joyful moment. The trajectory from our small dark offices to their hearts is what matters. At least to this writer. Yes, we should be paid for what we do. And 'tis true that only a small percentage of writers, even best-selling ones, make any money from their book sales (that's another story)... At the end of the day, every committed writer knows that it's ultimately about doing the work, no matter where it lands. And that's good news because we can control only that piece of the trajectory. If we truly love doing the work, then we will always be rich in the way that counts. And if someone actually reads it, well then... gravy.
But please... if you're going to throw a garage sale and toss our books into the equation, could you at least humor us by putting a price tag on it? Oh, say, something similar to the $2.50 chipped ash tray or the $1.25 rusty oil can? Just for dignity's sake, never mind the ego? The ego took her ball (and books) and went home a long...time...ago.
If you are looking for your voice, your stories, Haven Retreats is calling you. We still have room in our fall retreats in Montana! You do not have to be a writer to come...just a seeker.